Peter Wyngarde: 1927 to 2018

Well-regarded British actor Peter Wyngarde, whose career spanned half a century, passed away on January 15th. He was 90 years old.

Peter Wyngarde 1993

There is some dispute regarding early details of Wyngarde’s life. It is known that his father was a British diplomat stationed in Asia before World War II.  When Shanghai was invaded by the Japanese in 1941, the fourteen year old Wyngarde was sent to an internment camp along with hundreds of other British citizens.  The next four years were brutal ones.  Wyngarde suffered from malnutrition, and at one point his feet were broken by his Japanese captors.  One of the few concessions the Japanese accorded their prisoners was allowing them to stage plays in the canteen.  This was the beginning of Wyngarde’s lifelong love of acting.

When the war ended Wyngarde was able to return to Britain. It took him some time to recuperate from his harsh ordeal, but afterwards he was determined to make a living as an actor.  He began appearing in theatrical roles in 1946, starting with bit parts and as an understudy, gradually working his way up to more significant roles over the next decade.  Beginning in the mid-1950s he also worked in television.  His breakthrough role was playing Sidney Carton in the BBC’s 1957 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Continuing his theater work, and occasionally acting in movies, Wyngarde also made several noteworthy guest appearances on British television. He twice played villains on The Avengers starring Patrick Macnee & Diana Rigg.  In the memorable 1966 episode entitled “A Touch of Brimstone,” Wyngarde portrayed the sadistic Sir John Cartney, the head of the kinky, hedonistic Hellfire Club, who were plotting an overthrow of the British government.  A year later he returned to the series in the episode “Epic.” This time he played Stewart Kirby, a washed-up Hollywood star involved in an audacious plot to film the murder of Emma Peel.  The role involved numerous costume & make-up changes for Wyngarde, and he approached it with over-the-top gusto.

In 1967 Wyngarde guest starred on The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cult classic psychological spy drama. He assumed the role of the Village’s sinister Number Two in the episode “Checkmate.”

Peter Wyngarde The Prisoner

Wyngarde best-known role was the suave, womanizing Interpol investigator turned novelist Jason King. He originated the part in the ITV series Department S, which ran for 28 episodes between 1969 and 1970.  The character of Jason King proved very popular with viewers, and was spun off into his own series, which aired from 1971 to 1972.

Wyngarde was gifted with a deep, smooth voice and a striking presence. Portraying the sophisticated, charismatic Jason King, he was often clad in fashionable, impeccably-tailored suits.  All together this resulted in Wyngarde becoming both a sex symbol and a style icon in the early 1970s.

In a 1993 interview Wyngarde explained that he put a great deal of himself into the character…

“I decided Jason King was going to be an extension of me. I was not going to have a superimposed personality. I was inclined to be a bit of a dandy, used to go to the tailor with my designs. And my hair was long because I had been in this Chekhov play, The Duel, at the Duke of York’s.

“Jason King had champagne and strawberries for breakfast, just as I did myself. I drank myself to a standstill. When I think about it now, I am amazed I’m still here.”

Although Department S and Jason King had made Wyngarde famous, he subsequently chose to return to his first love, the theater. In 1973 he co-starred with Sally Ann Howes in a production of The King and I that ran for 260 performances.  This was followed by a number of other stage roles.

In 1980, in the campy Dino De Laurentiis-produced Flash Gordon movie, Wyngarde played Klytus, the gold-masked henchman to Ming the Merciless. Wyngarde also appeared in the Doctor Who serial “Planet of Fire” in 1984, turning in a subtle, memorable performance.  The late 1980s and the 90s saw further work on the stage, as well as occasional television guest roles.

Peter Wyngarde Flash Gordon

It is a testament to how iconic a figure Wyngarde was that his likeness was immortalized in print in the early 1980s in the pages of the X-Men comic book series by the creative team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Terry Austin.  The Avengers television episode “A Touch of Brimstone” inspired Claremont & Byrne to introduce their own version of the Hellfire Club, a cabal of ruthless mutant industrialists manipulating politics and the economy to their benefit, in the now-classic X-Men storyline “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”  One of the members of this Hellfire Club was the X-Men’s old adversary Mastermind, now in the guise of the evil, seductive “Jason Wyngarde,” modeled, off course, on Peter Wyngarde’s performance as Jason King.

As a younger viewer I was passing familiar with Wyngarde from Flash Gordon and Doctor Who. However, it was in the 1990s via the internet that I first learned of how Claremont & Byrne had paid homage to the actor in their X-Men run.  The full Jason King series was finally released on DVD in 2007 here in the States, and I enjoyed it tremendously.  I subsequently viewed episodes of Department S, which was also an enjoyable show.

I was definitely a fan of Wyngarde’s work; he had such a wonderful presence on screen, and a rich, memorable voice.

Peter Wyngarde Mastermind
Peter Wyngarde as the suave sleuth Jason King, side-by-side with X-Men villain Mastermind in his guise as “Jason Wyngarde” as rendered by John Byrne & Terry Austin in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”

Following Wyngarde’s passing last week his agent and manager Thomas Bowington declared:

“He was one of the most unique, original and creative actors that I have ever seen. As a man, there were few things in life he didn’t know.”

Wyngarde was a private man, and wary of the press. He seldom gave interviews.  Last year he spoke at length to Tina Hopkins for The Official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society blog.  It is an informative and insightful piece that goes into the details of Wyngarde’s life & career.

Star Wars reviews: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens arriving in theaters this December, I’m examining some of the Star Wars comic books and novels of the past.  Today’s post looks at the very first entry in what is now referred to as the “expanded universe.”   Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was written by Alan Dean Foster and published in February 1978, eight months after the debut of the original movie.

Splinter of the Minds Eye novel cover

Foster’s novel opens shortly after the events of A New Hope.  Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa, accompanied by the droids R2-D2 and C-3P0, are traveling to the fourth planet in the Circarpous system.  They hope to convince the inhabitants of Circarpous IV to join the Rebel Alliance.

Before they can arrive at their destination, Leia’s spacecraft develops a malfunction.  They are forced to head towards the fifth planet, Mimban, an inhospitable swamp world.  A sudden electrical storm causes both Leia and Luke’s ships to violently crash-land.  After days of slogging through treacherous swamp, the two Rebels and their droids come across a human settlement. Unfortunately it is an Imperial installation; the Galactic Empire is secretly mining the planet’s mineral wealth.

Stealing mine uniforms, Luke and Leia visit the town saloon.  They meet Halla, an elderly woman who possesses a slight affinity for the Force.  Halla is seeking the Kaiburr Crystal, a red jewel that “increases one’s perception of the Force.”  The crystal is thought to be a myth, but Halla has acquired directions to the ancient native temple where it is supposedly located, as well as an actual shard of the crystal (the eponymous “splinter of the mind’s eye”).  Luke touches the shard, and his connection to the Force confirms that it is genuine.

Halla makes a deal with Luke and Leia: if they assist her in locating the Crystal, she will help them steal a spaceship to escape Mimban.  Before plans can be made, Luke and Leia get into a brawl with a group of drunken miners and are arrested by Stormtroopers.  The two are brought before the planet’s Imperial overseer, Captain-Supervisor Grammel.

While suspicious of their claim to be criminals fleeing from Circarpous IV, Grammel is intrigued by the crystal shard Luke and Leia possess.  He orders them locked up and contacts his superior, Governor Essada, who possesses some knowledge of crystals and minerals, hoping to obtain an assessment of the splinter’s value.  Essada unfortunately recognizes Leia from the security photo Grammel sends him, and the Governor orders the two to be held until someone can be dispatched to interrogate them.

Luke and Leia are placed in a cell with two large hairy aliens known as Yuzzem.  Hin and Kee have been jailed for drunk & disorderly conduct, having caused a major ruckus after they realized they were unable to get out of their indentured servitude to the Empire.  Luke convinces the angry, hung-over Yuzzem that he and Leia are also enemies of the Empire.

At that point Halla pops up at the window of their cell.  She combines her minor Force abilities with Luke’s, and the two of them levitate a food tray between the bars, using it to activate the switch for the cell door.  The prisoners make a break for it, with Him and Kee causing tremendous destruction.  They rendezvous with Halla and the droids, steal a swamp crawler, and flee the settlement.

Heading out in search of the Kaiburr Crystal, the seven fugitives encounter numerous dangers in the swampy wilderness.  Luke eventually realizes that they face another fearsome adversary: Darth Vader has arrived on Mimban searching for the Rebels.  The Sith Lord also recognizes the significance of the Crystal and seeks it to augment his dark powers.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB cover

Alan Dean Foster was involved in the Star Wars universe from very early on.  When the first movie was still in production he was hired by George Lucas to ghost write a novelization based on an early draft of the script.  Foster was also contracted to write an original novel that could serve as a sequel.  Lucas was uncertain if Star Wars would be successful, and he instructed Foster to devise a story that could be shot on a small budget, using as much of the existing props and costumes as possible.  From this directive Foster devised Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, with its relatively small cast and its setting on a dark swampy planet.

Of course, as we all know, Star Wars was a gigantic success, and Lucas was able to make a very ambitious sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.  Nevertheless, although Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was never filmed it is still a good read, an interesting link between the two movies.

Even working within the constraints given him, Foster writes an entertaining novel with exciting action sequences.  There is a cinematic quality to Foster’s writing that definitely brings these scenes to life.  The novel culminates in a riveting lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader in the ruined Temple of Pomojema for possession of the Kaiburr Crystal.

Written as it was in 1977, there are inevitably a few aspects of the novel that don’t fit the later canon too neatly.  There’s no indication that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.  Some of Foster’s dialogue for Vader seems a bit off, at least considering how the character was subsequently scripted in the next two movies.

Foster includes sexual tension between Luke and Leia, as this was well before Lucas revealed (or perhaps even decided) that they were brother and sister.  Commenting on this in 1996, Foster stated “the tension in the book between Luke and Princess Leia works even better in hindsight, now that they can be seen as squabbling siblings ignorant of their true relationship.”  I suppose you could argue that.  At least Foster didn’t show the two of them actually kissing, unlike that now-unfortunate smooch on Hoth a couple years later!

On the other hand, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye actually forecasts certain elements of the series.  I wonder if Lucas was influenced by it when writing the sequels and prequels.  Mimban is very much like the planet Dagobah.  During the battle in the Temple, Vader uses something similar to the “Force lightning” later utilized by the Emperor.

An interesting thing occurs towards the end of the novel.  When the group arrives at the Temple, Luke leaves R2-D2 and C-3P0 outside to keep watch.  Later, when Vader appears, surprising them, the Sith explains “As for your ‘droids, they are conditioned to obey orders. I had them turn themselves off.”  When Luke reactivates them, a panicked C-3P0 tells him “We couldn’t escape him. He knew all the proper code words and commands.”

The first time I read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye in 1989 this was puzzling.  How could Vader possibly know how to shut down R2-D2 and C-3P0?  Of course, once the prequels came out, this made perfect sense, as we found out that C-3P0 was built by Anakin Skywalker, and R2-D2 was his astromech droid during the Clone Wars.  So of course decades later Vader would know how to deactivate both of them.  Again, I wonder if Lucas got the idea of tying Anakin / Vader to the two droids from Foster’s novel.

One of the weak points of the original Star Wars was that we never saw the events of the movie having any sort of lasting impact on Leia.  The way that Lucas filmed the scene setting up Leia’s interrogation by the Empire, it is very strongly implied that they are going to do something horrifying to her.  But the next time we see her she is seemingly unharmed and defiant.  Likewise, the destruction of Leia’s home planet of Alderaan is almost shrugged off by Leia.

Foster addresses this in his novel.  Leia has been hardened by her experiences.  Luke is aghast at the carnage and bloodshed of their battles with the Empire, but the more cynical Leia grimly accepts it as an unfortunate necessity.  While imprisoned by the Empire on Mimban, Leia finds out from Grammel that an Imperial Governor will soon be arriving to question her.  Her immediate reaction is uncontrollable panic as she flashes back to her ordeal on the Death Star.  Leia soon recovers her composure, but it is apparent that she still carries psychological scars from that experience.

The cover for Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was painted by Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who played a significant role in devising the look of the Star Wars universe, designing many of the characters and sets for the original trilogy.  His atmospheric rendering of a stunned Luke and Leia witnessing Vader’s arrival at the Temple of Pomojema is now an iconic image.

Splinter of the Minds Eye TPB pg 32

In 1996 Dark Horse published a four issue comic book adaptation of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye written & inked by Terry Austin and penciled by Chris Sprouse.  The miniseries was collected in a trade paperback with a cover by Duncan Fegredo.  Alan Dean Foster contributed an introduction.

It’s interesting to observe the choices Austin made in adapting a 300 page prose novel into a 97 page graphic novel.  A certain amount of condensing of scenes and dialogue was required.  Austin did a good job at keeping the important plot and character elements while working within a smaller length.

Austin took advantage of the fact that he was working in 1996 to add a few elements from subsequent movies.  Darth Vader is given a couple of short scenes that precede his original introduction more than three quarters of the way into the original novel.  In these Austin gives glimpses of Captain Piett, the flagship Executor, and an Imperial shuttlecraft arriving on Mimban.

Sprouse does wonderful work bringing the elements of the novel to life.  His designs for Halla, the Yuzzem, the giant swamp worm Wandrella, the native tribe of the Coway, and the Temple are all very effective.  Sprouse has always done good work on sci-fi / pulp-themed series, most notably Legion of Super-Heroes and Tom Strong.  That makes him a great fit for the Star Wars universe.

Austin is, of course, one of the all-time greatest inkers / embellishers in comic books.  As good as Sprouse’s penciling is on the Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Austin’s inking makes it even more amazing.  Their styles mesh very well indeed, and their adaptation of Foster’s novel is wonderful.

Comic book reviews: The Fox by Dean Haspiel and friends

Given that I enjoyed the New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes miniseries Archie Comics / Red Circle published a year ago, I was probably going to get their next offering, the five issue miniseries The Fox.  Of course, as soon as I found out that Dean Haspiel would be plotting and illustrating the book, well, I was sold.

I’ve been a fan of Haspiel’s work since he collaborated with Josh Neufeld on the Keyhole anthology series in the late 1990s, and subsequently worked solo on his Billy Dogma stories.  Haspiel is one of those rare creators who successfully straddle the worlds of independent and mainstream comics. He is equally at home crafting bizarre, experimental projects and chronicling the adventures of popular Marvel & DC superheroes.  In fact, The Fox is very much a meeting ground between those two worlds, as Haspiel brings his innovative small press sensibilities with him in a clever revamping of a long-time Red Circle costumed crime-fighter.

The Fox 2 pg 1

Paul Patton Jr. is the son of the original Fox.  Unlike his father, Paul never set out to be a hero.  Rather, as a photojournalist, Paul felt that by becoming a masked vigilante he could attract news stories, create material to help his career.  Unfortunately Paul eventually realized that he had become, in Haspiel’s words, a “freak magnet,” attracting all sorts of bizarre individuals & strange events without meaning to.  Now all Paul desperately wants is a normal life with his wife and kids.  But fate just keeps conspiring against him, throwing a succession of oddities and curveballs his way with alarming regularity.

Scripting “Freak Magnet” is veteran writer Mark Waid.  I really enjoyed his work in the past on such series as The Flash, Captain America, The Brave and the Bold, and Kingdom Come.  Although the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Waid is old-school, traditional superhero tales (and I mean that as a compliment) he really is a diverse scribe, having also penned the extremely dark titles Empire and Irredeemable.  With The Fox, Waid shows yet another side of his talent, scripting some hysterically insane dialogue to accompany Haspiel’s bizarre, surreal plotting.  The two make a hell of a team.  And, yeah, you could say that Waid makes the Fox much more witty and eloquent than the original Golden Age version, who was introduced in 1940 by writer Joe Blair & artist Irwin Hasen:

The Fox Irwin Hasen

“Yah yah yah yah yaaahh!”  Indeed.

Beginning in issue #2 is a back-up story featuring the Shield.  Writer J.M. DeMatteis reunites with penciler Mike Cavallaro, who he previously collaborated with on The Life and Times of Savior 28.  Joining them is the insanely talented Terry Austin who, as I’ve mentioned on at least one occasion, is one of the best inkers / embellishers in the comic book biz. He does superb work over Cavallaro’s pencils here.

DeMatteis’ story is a flashback to World War II, as Joe Higgins, aka the Shield, heads to Antarctica to investigate a mysterious power source that the military suspect is being caused by an unknown Axis super-weapon.  At first tangling a horde of monsters, the Shield then encounters the German and Japanese agents Master Race and Hachiman.  Not stopping to ask questions, the Shield leaps at them, engaging the two Axis super-soldiers in battle.  But these three men soon discover that things are not as simple as they seem.

The Fox 2 pg 25

One of the aspects of DeMatteis’ writing that I have appreciated since I first encountered it way back in the pages of Captain America #278 was that he would demonstrate that not every problem can be solved with violence.  In a genre such as superhero comic books, which (truth be told) often involves costumed superhumans beating each other senseless, this is a somewhat unusual approach, one that has often set DeMatteis apart from his contemporaries.  But I appreciate that he scripts protagonists who utilize their intelligence & reasoning to arrive at a more constructive solution than punching the other guy in the face.

Not to get too political, but there is such a significant problem in the real world where non-violent strategies are frowned upon.  One need only look at reactions to the current crisis in the Ukraine.  Various politicians are decrying the tactics of negotiations with and economic sanctions against Russia because they make the United States look “weak.”  Of course, the people usually calling for military action either cannot or will not recognize that conflicts such as this one are not black & white affairs with “good guys” and “bad guys” that can be quickly & neatly solved by blowing up some “evil” enemy.  And you can be guaranteed that those saber-rattling politicos and armchair generals are not the types to lay their own lives on the line in the service of their country, instead leaving it to others to fight & die on the battlefield.

Very unexpectedly, the extremely different adventures of Paul Patton and Joe Higgins come crashing together at the end of issue #4, as the Fox, having helped rescue the other-dimensional Diamond Realm from the diabolical Druid, is transported back to Earth.  But instead of returning to the United States in 2014, an alarmed Fox materializes in Antarctica seven decades earlier, ending up smack dab in the middle of a four-way fight between the Shield, Master Race, Hachiman and an equally time-displaced Druid.

The Fox 5 pg 9

With DeMatteis taking over both the plotting & scripting for the final issue, I really wondered how this would work out.  DeMatteis has very different sensibilities from Waid.  Much of his work features psychoanalytical or spiritual tones.  That’s not to say that DeMatteis cannot do comedy, because he has written some very funny stories in the past.  But, yes, there is a somewhat abrupt shift in mood between #4 and #5.  Perhaps DeMatteis might have endeavored to maintain some of the Fox’s irreverent commentary in the concluding issue.  But, on the whole, it is a pretty effective conclusion.  The fact that the Fox is not your typical superhero, that he really just wants to have a nice, quiet life, makes him just the sort of individual to think outside the box.  He’s the one who is able to realize that the Shield, Master Race, and Hachiman have to stop thinking with their fists, set aside their distrust, and come up with a more intelligent strategy to stop the Druid.

Haspiel does a fine job illustrating the concluding issue.  After the wacky shenanigans of the preceding four chapters, he ably shifts gears, ably depicting both the gritty horrors of war and the mystic, esoteric final confrontation with the Druid.

I also have to give a tip of the hat to John Workman.  As always, his lettering is dynamic.  It’s an oft-overlooked art.

One other nice touch to The Fox was that there were a number of tie-ins with New Crusaders.  In addition to the Shield, there are also appearances by Dusty the Space Chimp and Bob Phantom.  And we learn that Paul Patton’s daughter is Fly-Girl.  For those who have also read New Crusaders, these are nice touches that will make you go “A-ha!”  But they are done in such a way that if you’ve never laid eyes on that other miniseries, you will still be able to appreciate The Fox as a stand-alone piece.  That is how continuity should work.

The Fox 1 Freak Magnet cover signed

I did think that having 17 covers for 5 issues was a bit much, though.  Yeah, there was some nice artwork on those variants.  I guess they’ll make for a really lovely gallery in the back of the upcoming trade paperback.  Okay, I did splurge a bit and pick up a couple of the alternate covers, namely Haspiel’s “Freak Magnet” issue #1 variant, and the cover for #5 showcasing a vintage rendering of the Fox by the late, great Alex Toth.

All in all, despite a couple of hiccups, The Fox was very well done.  I’m glad that Haspiel & Waid are already working on a second miniseries.  I’m definitely looking forward to the further misadventures of everyone’s favorite freak magnet.

Tomorrow is today: X-Men “Days of Future Past”

It’s 2013.  Do you know where your X-Men are?

Sure, here in the real world, if you want to locate the X-Men, just head on over to the local comic book shop, where you’ll find your favorite mutants in numerous ongoing series published by Marvel Comics.  But back in the early 1980s, within the fictional world they inhabited, the X-Men had every reason to be fearful of the 21st Century.  In the now-classic two part story “Days of Future Past,” readers were given a glimpse of a horrifying dystopian future where humanity no longer ruled, and mutant-kind were hunted like animals by soulless mechanical tyrants.

Uncanny XMen 141 cover

Originally appearing in Uncanny X-Men #141-142, published in late 1980, “Days of Future Past” was co-plotted by John Byrne & Chris Claremont, penciled by Byrne, scripted by Claremont, and inked by Terry Austin, under the editorship of Louise Simonson.  This two issue tale showed us the remnants of the X-Men in the year 2013 attempting to alter history.  With the aid of the telepath Rachel, the now-adult Kate Pryde’s consciousness is projected back in time into her teenage body.  She tells the skeptical present-day X-Men of 1980 of the dire future waiting on the horizon.

Kate informs the X-Men that the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is planning to murder U.S. Senator Robert Kelly, who is advocating for the regulation of mutants.  Kate states that the Brotherhood’s actions backfire horribly; rather than serving as a warning for humanity to stay out of mutant affairs, the assassination causes a virulent wave of anti-mutant hysteria to sweep across the nation.  The “Mutant Control Act” is passed in 1984, but is struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  This merely further emboldens the paranoid elements of the federal government, and they reactivate the giant anti-mutant Sentinel robots.  The Sentinels are given “fatally broad parameters” to deal with mutants and, to humanity’s horror, decide the most logical manner in which to do so is to seize control of the country.

Over the next quarter century, nearly all superhumans in North America are exterminated by the Sentinels, with the survivors imprisoned in “internment centers.”  In 2013, the Sentinels are now preparing to spread out across the globe to fulfill their mandate to eliminate mutants.  The rest of the world, much more fearful of being conquered by the Sentinels than they are of the dangers posed by mutants, is prepared to retaliate with a full-scale nuclear strike against the former United States.

Uncanny XMen 141 pg 14

The present-day X-Men race to Washington DC, hoping to thwart the assassination attempt on Senator Kelly by the shape-shifting Mystique and her new Mutant Brotherhood.  Meanwhile, in 2013, the remnants of the future X-Men escape from the South Bronx Mutant Internment Center.  This ragtag band heads into Manhattan and the Baxter Building, which is now the headquarters of the Sentinels, in a desperate attempt to destroy it and avert nuclear holocaust.  The X-Men of 1980 narrowly succeed in saving Kelly, and Kate’s consciousness departs back for her own time.  Unfortunately in 2013 events take a much worse turn, with the future X-Men being brutally slaughtered by the Sentinels, leaving only Rachel and Kate alive.

Back in the present, the X-Men ponder whether or not they have averted the dark future of mutant genocide.  Professor Xavier observes “Only time will tell.”  And in an ominous epilogue, Kelly, more convinced than ever that mutants are a danger, is introduced by the President to Henry Peter Gyrich.  To safeguard humanity from mutant-kind, Kelly & Gyrich are to put into place the top-secret “Project Wideawake,” and a key aspect of this program will be the reactivation of the Sentinels.

As I did not get into comic books on a semi-regular basis until the mid-1980s, I obviously did not have the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” when it was first published.  I think the first time I ever found out about the events of the story was one summer, when I was at day camp, and a fellow comic book fan had brought along several issues of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.  One of these contained the entry for Rachel Summers aka Phoenix II, the telepath from “Days of Future Past.”  Her biography in that issue was, in part, a summation of Claremont & Byrne’s story arc, a description of the nightmarish Sentinel-controlled future.  It seriously unnerved me.  As a Jew, it really struck a chord.  Having grown up learning all about the Holocaust, to read about a fictional scenario where a minority group right here in the United States was rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps, marked for extermination, was very disturbing.

I finally had the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” itself in the early 1990s, when Marvel reprinted the story in a one-shot, and then several years later when it was included in Essential X-Men Vol. 2.  I found it a very powerful story.  Claremont & Byrne definitely crafted an unsettling vision of the future.  The artwork by Byrne & Austin was stunning, really driving home the impact of this dark tomorrow.  (And I am a HUGE fan of Austin’s inking on pretty much anything.  He’s an amazing artist.)  The covers for these two issues have become extremely iconic.  That image of Wolverine & Kate backed against the wall of wanted posters, drawn by Byrne & Austin, has been the subject of numerous homages over the decades, and #142, which was both penciled & inked by Austin, showcases the gruesome death of Wolverine at the hands of the Sentinels.

Uncanny XMen 142 cover

It is interesting that “Days of Future Past” was only a two part story.  Nowadays, if anything like it was attempted by Marvel (or DC, for that matter) it would probably be a huge event, at least ten chapters long, and cross over with numerous other titles.  I really do not think what Claremont & Byrne achieved in those two issues, not to mention within the rest of their groundbreaking run on Uncanny X-Men, could be replicated today.  Well, not at the Big Two, at any rate.  Perhaps it could be in the arena of independent and creator-owned books?

That “Days of Future Past” reprint special ended with a brief afterword by Simonson, who noted that Claremont & Byrne’s “dual vision, their future history remains. Its seeds are in the past. Its reality flavors the present. And its future is almost upon us.”

It has often been observed that the X-Men can serve as metaphors for nearly any minority or group that has faced discrimination: African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, etc.  I think that is true.  I also think that the themes of “Days of Future Past” are more relevant than ever.  Despite the important strides many minorities have made in gaining recognition under the law, there is still a tremendous amount of bigotry & intolerance in this country.

Uncanny XMen 141 pg 1

Politics have become increasingly polarized, allowing the most extreme elements of society a greater voice & influence.  In the post September 11th era, there are some who advocate surveillance upon the entire Muslim community as a necessity to insure national security.  There are calls to “secure the borders” in order to prevent illegal immigrants from Latin America entering the country to steal jobs from “real Americans.”  Many still regard homosexuality as an “abomination” against God, with some even wanting to imprison gays to prevent the further spread of AIDS.  To secure votes, unscrupulous politicians pander to the racist elements of their constituents, cementing the belief that President Obama is some sort of foreign-born Muslim Socialist with a sinister agenda.

Even in a supposedly progressive city like NYC, we have seen a resurgence of gay-bashing, and many people genuinely believe that if the police do not stop & frisk every single dark-skinned teenage male in sight that crime will skyrocket.

My point is that we must remain ever vigilant in safeguarding our liberties & freedoms.  When one group is oppressed, it creates a slippery slope that could lead to others also being denied their rights, until eventually we are all under the heel of oppression.  The Sentinels are a potent symbol for intolerance.  Via their actions in “Days of Future Past,” we can see that hatred & intolerance is blind, and embracing it can lead to the destruction of all that we were claiming to be protecting in the first place.

Comic book reviews: New Crusaders #2-4

The first issue of New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes, published by Archie / Red Circle Comics, saw the original, retired Mighty Crusaders attacked and seemingly killed by their arch enemy, the sinister Brain Emperor. The sole survivor of the carnage was Joe Higgins, the Shield, who rushed the teenage children of the Crusaders to his underground safe haven.

As the second issue of New Crusaders opens, the six children of the fallen heroes are coming to grips with the apparent deaths of their parents & guardians. The Shield, who isn’t certain how to console them, instead takes on the role of mentor & drill sergeant and begins to prepare them to take over as the successors to the fallen Mighty Crusaders. This was something their parents had intended them to eventually do when the time was right. But now the Shield has to give his trainees a crash course. Emphasis on “crash.”

Writer Ian Flynn does excellent work scripting New Crusaders #s 2-4. All the shocked teenagers want to do is take the time to mourn their parents. Instead of being given the opportunity to adjust to the massive upheaval in their lives, through, the Shield chucks them in the deep end. And, not unexpectedly, they flounder, and their grief is now compounded with resentment at the Shield for attempting to turn them into soldiers at this most vulnerable moment. In the process, Flynn really gives us the opportunity to get to know these kids. After all, there was so much going on in the first issue that at the end they were still ciphers. So it was a wise decision on Flynn’s part to take the time to gradually develop them over the course of these next three issues of the series. I really felt I got to know who these six people were.

At the end of New Crusaders #4, the teens have embraced their legacies and adopted their parents’ costumed identities. They have begun training to use their new powers & abilities. And then the news comes: the Brain Emperor has struck again. Which presumably means that these new costumed heroes are about to endure a baptism of fire. This could be really messy!

New Crusaders #4 page 17, by Alitha Martinez & Gary Martin
New Crusaders #4 page 17, by Alitha Martinez & Gary Martin

As I mentioned in my review of issue #1, I really enjoyed the artwork on New Crusaders. The quality of the artwork continued with issue #s 2-4. Ben Bates returns to pencil the second issue, and he does an excellent job with this crucial story, really helping to get across the grief and anger of the teenagers. Bates also provides layouts for issue #3, with incoming artist Alitha Martinez doing the finished pencils. Martinez takes over full penciling chores with #4, and she turns in some exemplary work. Inking all three issues is Gary Martin.

I also wanted to point out the contributions of John Workman. He is one of the all time greatest letterers in the comic book biz. As I’ve mentioned in the past, he is probably best known for lettering Walter Simonson on numerous books over the years. It’s really great to see Workman on New Crusaders. He really has a dynamic style to his work that makes the dialogue, captions, and sound effects come alive.

Another veteran comic book pro who also contributes to New Crusaders is Rich Buckler. I’ve always enjoyed his work, especially his groundbreaking Deathlok series. Buckler was one of the artists who worked on Archie’s Mighty Crusaders title in the early 1980s. It was great that he was asked to contribute a cover to New Crusaders #4. I really hope that Archie will have him do more work for them. Issue #3 included a reprint of a 1980s back-up story he worked on featuring Fly-Girl. I’d like to see him be able to draw some brand new material for the back-up slot in New Crusaders.

New Crusaders #4 cover by Rich Buckler
New Crusaders #4 cover by Rich Buckler

Speaking of the back-up stories, issue #s 2 and 4 had original material. It was cool to see Chuck Dixon write a Comet back-up story. And my absolute favorite inker/finisher, the legendary Terry Austin, was also on hand. He inked the prelude to The Lost Crusade, an upcoming series written by Flynn and Dixon that is going to explore the original team’s missing years. I knew that Austin had been working for Archie the last few years, but it was great to see him on New Crusaders. As with Buckler, I hope Austin is asked back again.

As I understand it, New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes has two more issues to go. After wrapping up, the next miniseries is going to be titled Dark Tomorrow. So far, I’ve really been enjoying this book. It’s an exciting series with really thoughtful writing, interesting characters, and superb artwork. I am definitely looking forward to seeing what happens next. For me, it’s much more engaging that the majority of the material currently being release by DC or Marvel. So I highly recommend giving New Crusaders a try.